Thought Catalog
February 12, 2015

What Are We Rewarding In Children’s Literature? (#GuysDoRead)

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What is the issue?
iStockphoto / FOTOGRAF-77
iStockphoto / FOTOGRAF-77

Are Children’s Books ‘A Women’s Profession’?

The announcement today of the shortlist for the annual Waterstones Children’s Book Prize brought an early response:

While the award’s shortlists started out as reasonably gender-balanced, they have tended to favor female authors and illustrators in recent years. The 2014 shortlist caught my eye last year as there were only three male authors and illustrators among the 19 nominated and there were no male authors in the Teen Fiction categories.

Jonathan Emmett
Jonathan Emmett

That’s the children’s picture-book author Jonathan Emmett, whose Cool, Not Cute! campaign we mentioned in our earlier piece about Mark Zuckerberg’s fine new initiative called A Year of Books at Facebook.

And, indeed, my good colleague at The Bookseller, our children’s editor Charlotte Eyre, is flagging what Emmett has spotted for our readership in her lead coverage: Women writers dominate Waterstones kids’ shortlist. Eyre writes:

Female authors account for the vast majority of this year’s Waterstones Children’s Book Prize this year, with 15 of the 18 titles written by women.

Emmett points to the relatively new category in the Waterstones Award program, the Best Book for Teens accolade. This year, not one of the six titles chosen as finalists for Best Book for Teens is by a male writer.

Charlotte Eyre
Charlotte Eyre

And in her report, Eyre concurs:

The only men shortlisted are G R Gemin for Cowgirl (Nosy Crow) in the fiction section, and Steve Antony for The Queen’s Hat (Hodder) and Rob Biddulph for Blown Away (HarperCollins) in the illustrated book category.

And what of a tweet flying by, celebrating how “great” it is that the teen category has an all-women shortlist? Was that category locked up by male authors in the past? Far, far from it. In fact, Emmett recalls there never being more than one male author among the six shortlisted for Best Book for Teens since the category was opened in 2012.

So what might be “great” about a category as potentially pivotal in young readers’ lives as Best Book for Teens going to an all-women or all-men shortlist?

What is being celebrated when we see cheers for the domination by either gender in such a critical spot as the UK’s highly influential Waterstones list of strong children’s literature?

Just to be clear, no one in his or her right mind wants to offer anything but congratulations to the shortlisted authors — all of them — of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2015. And no one I’ve heard discussing the shortlist has questioned the quality or value of a single title honored.

No, the issue is that gender factor. Emmett goes on:

I was hoping that this might be a blip, but this year’s shortlist is only slightly more balanced with only 3 male authors and illustrators among the 18 shortlisted and, once again, no male authors in the teen category. I don’t know the teen market well, but surely there are some male authors writing teen fiction that are worth recognising.

And if you stop just long enough to ask yourself a single question, you realize where he’s coming from:

What if the gender imbalance in the Waterstones shortlist released today gave us 15 books by men and only three by women?

Would we hear any concerns voiced then? Well, of course we would. And rightly so.

Intentions Vs. Outcomes: Should Either ‘Side’ Be The ‘Winner’?

Several points are important in the dialog that’s building in urgency among thoughtful, earnest members of the readership and of the publishing community about the trend highlighted by the Waterstones shortlist.

In a nutshell, it’s this: What if we have confused the need for “gender balance” in our books culture with support for women over men?

“Balance,” after all, means balance. And while we might never achieve perfect equilibrium in almost any aspect of life or work, there seems to be a line of thinking in parts of the publishing industry today that interprets “balance” to mean support and applause for women and girls.

Baroness Gail Rebuck
Baroness Gail Rebuck

Let me commend to you the blog post offered by Baroness Gail Rebuck this week at The Bookseller, Reflecting on Women in Publishing. While focused on women as “the talent pipeline of the future” and the executive suites of publishing, Rebuck closes her thoughts with a graciously funny anecdote from the 1970s: “There will never be true equality in the workplace until there are as many mediocre women at the top of organisations as there are mediocre men!”

On any day of the week, those of us who are eager to see something approaching gender parity in business can ruefully chuckle along on that one.

After all, even the term “diversity” itself, when it comes to gender issues, tends to be confused with an automatic reference to female advancement. These terms are so readily weighted, often without our thinking about it. However much I and many others despise the stupid oppression of women by men for such an unspeakably large part of history, can moving forward by creating the opposing imbalance possibly be the answer? Of course not.

‘There is this peculiar notion that women (all women) know more about children than men. In my experience, this isn’t true.’
Alison Sage

Effects such as those seen in the Waterstones shortlist need not be “somebody’s fault.” Blame is not an issue here. I don’t think that anyone gets up in the morning in books publishing today and says to him- or herself, “Here goes another great day of suppressing books by and for guys and promoting books by and for women.”

But however unintended such constructs may be, their outcomes may be exacerbating a serious and deepening challenge: our men and boys aren’t reading as much as our women and girls.

As I referenced in my Zuckerberg article with astute input from the recent Kids & Family Reading Report by the major educational publisher Scholastic — and the OECD Gender Equality in Education Report — boys in both the States and in the United Kingdom are understood to be reading less, and less willingly, than girls. This is not a surprise of course, these and similar trends have been discusssed for years now.

The question we come to is one of how and why.

And, boy (or girl), are these are hard conversations to have.

Do you want to see the truly valuable, innovative, substantive work that so many women do in publishing overlooked for praise in settings such as the Waterstones list? I hope not. Publishing is endlessly enriched by the participation of every woman who works anywhere close to books. The industry is right to honor women, and surely there is pride to be taken in the fact that — woefully contrary to so many other industries — publishing is one in which women are doing so much, so well, for so many.

But are we properly aware, are we really understanding that some of our best-intended efforts may be damaging even further the  crisis in male reading today?

One woman, steeped in experience in the UK publishing industry, has stepped forward to say that no, we may not be comprehending fully what’s happening. She says that Emmett’s “Cool, not Cute!” effort to call attention to the issue is something we need to stop and consider.

A Longtime Children’s Editor: ‘A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy’

Alison Sage
Alison Sage

Alison Sage — she lives up to her name — says far better than I did in the Zuckerberg article why the phrase “Men don’t read” is so counter-productive. I’m using the hashtag #GuysDoRead to try to get another thought into the tweeterie these days, a healthier assertion, I hope, than the discouraging “Men don’t’ read.”

But don’t listen to me. (I never listen to me.)

Here’s Sage:

Saying that “boys don’t read therefore it makes more commercial sense to publish for girls,” is a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Incidentally,  these arguments also work for  minorities. In a similar way, you can struggle to find books to satisfy many minority groups, apart from the token “you know it’s doing you good” kind of book, which children realize can be patronizing.

Sage explains that she was a children’s editor with publisher Ernest Benn from 1971 to 1980.

Hutchinson Literature“I went freelance when I had married and had three children,” she tells me.

Her publishing work, she says, would eventually include stints with Oxford University Press, HarperCollins and Harper Collins Educational, and Hodder & Stoughton. She tells me that she won a children’s book of the year award while with Random House’s Century for The Hutchinson Treasure of Children’s Literature.

Emmett’s interest is focused on picture books, the special class of young children’s books in which he works. Sage, too, has experience in the form and worked with Emmett at one point.

I’m going to quote Sage at some length here because she has an important observation to share, and she does it with respect and real care.

I’ll section-out this next sequence as her voice:

Alison Sage’s Comments: ‘A Bored Little Boy’

I began work in children’s books — which have always been my passion — at a time when women were still signing their manuscripts with their initials, in the hope of being taken for a man and improving their chances of getting published. I was appalled by this, especially as women’s manuscripts outnumbered men’s by a ratio of at least five to one. Received wisdom then was that you had a boy hero, because girls would read about boys, but never boys about girls.

Fast forward a few years to when I had my own three children, two boys and a girl, and I realized that my younger son would do anything, anything at all, rather than “read a good book” – and his friends were the same. They had no physical problems I could see (although sometimes their parents said they were dyslexic) but their reading ages were low and their comprehension of what they had read even lower. I went into schools and talked to teachers, read with children and talked to them, trying to find out what was going on — and found that my son’s attitude was repeated up and down the country.

Hutchinson PoetryAt that time, I had been asked to work on some reading books for a new series.  The publisher wanted to know why their previous reading series was not popular, even though it was written by some of the best children’s authors — classics, in fact.  The reason I discovered was that children, especially boys, love strong plots with lots happening.  They aren’t so interested in the subtleties of human behavior in the abstract.  They want to see it in action -quickly.  All children had little patience with stories which did not talk about the kinds of lives they led, and their interests. In boys’ case, often football, collecting things — especially hardware/facts — fantasy and the triumph of the “ordinary” kid. Who, of course, isn’t really ordinary, he just appears that way on the outside.

By the time boys are 5 and older, their exploration of the world seemed mainly through objects/facts, or through physical activity.  The collective noun for a group of boys seemed to be “a scuffle” — they are always wriggling, pushing, tripping, touching each other. Girls — as I found out from my daughter and her friends — are much more inclined to see the world in terms of the people and their interaction.

This has nothing to do with individual courage, or confidence, or ability.

So the answer seemed to be to find books which were high on plot, low on description & contemplation, where the subject matter was at a higher level than the reading age and the children appeared average but were in reality, always winners, even if it wasn’t in a way they expected.

Full of enthusiasm, I met Jonathan [Emmett] at that time and he wrote some fantastic stories which have been in print continuously for many years. We talked about what children liked to read about, especially when he had children of his own, and agreed that a few publishers’ editors were not happy with some of the ideas we felt boys would love.

Maybe —  and just maybe — this was related to the fact that as small girls, they had enjoyed girls’ books and been praised for preferring cleaner, quieter play-times.

The majority of editors in children’s publishing are women, and have no memory of what it was like to be a bored small boy.  Look at the current success of HarperCollins’ books by David Walliams.

Boys do want to read books if they are the right books for them.

This is not to say that there is no place for contemplative books, unusual books, books which break the mould! There should be room for the widest possible range of books.

‘This Peculiar Notion’

Sage has a couple more keen insights to bring to the table.  For example, she echoes something that Emmett has said before: men need to take more responsibility for what literature is offered to children.

Here is how Sage puts it:

I would not say that women hire women and men hire men.   However, many fewer men present themselves as children’s editors, because it is seen as a “women’s profession.”  There are some simply fantastic men editors, but they tend to move up through the ranks quite fast to management. There is this peculiar notion that women (all women) know more about children than men. In my experience, this isn’t true. Very often, men have just as good, if not better, hotlines to their own childhoods than young women, who may have been brought up to avoid things that are considered “boys’ interests.”

And on the subject of how difficult Emmett’s effort can be to sound the alarm, Sage says:

If you have not had experience as a child of enjoying boys’ books (or have avoided them through peer pressure), your ability to choose them might be more theoretical and abstract. And inaccurate. In addition, some women editors do see themselves as striking a blow for women who have been marginalized for many years.

The difficulty with Jonathan’s argument is that it’s an implied criticism, and one which women can’t do much about. Do you go for positive discrimination and hire men who perhaps, are no more sensitive than the women at choosing winners for boys? Obviously, I don’t think being a woman has ruined my ability to be an editor! But listening and sharing experiences with children/teachers/parents is very important. If you take a manuscript into a school, you can often see immediately what isn’t working with it — and why.

Sage, like many in publishing, worries that the demands of the marketplace hold too much sway:

Today, sales and marketing are key. And so several mantras of public opinion need altering to get any real change. Such as, “Little girls automatically prefer pink.”

And with gratitude to Alison Sage for sharing so much of her precise thinking on this difficult topic with us, I want to give her the last line:

How can it be sensible if children’s world view is directed by people exclusively of either sex? TC mark